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Jews Without Judaism

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Jews Without Judaism

Jews Without Judaism

What does it mean to be Jewish? Is “Jewish” necessarily intertwined with “Judaism,” or are the two entirely separate? Can a person really be “Jewish” without also being religious — or indeed, without even believing in the existence of God?

Summary

Title: Jews Without Judaism
Author: Rabbi Daniel Friedman
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 1573929247

Pro:
•  Exploration of the meaning of "Jew"
•  Discussions about how people find identity

Con:
•  A longer book with even more information would have been nice

Description:
•  Series of conversations between a Rabbi and Jews seeking advice
•  Friedman offers a non-traditional perspective on what being a "Jew" can mean
•  Arguments against many traditional conceptions of how a "Jew" should believe and behave

 

Book Review

All of these are important questions because, as Daniel Friedman explains, religion is playing less and less of a role in the lives of American Jews. Even more significant is the fact that what little “religious” behavior there is left among so many Jews is not motivated by fear of God. Instead, the motivations are much more secular, like maintaining connections with family members or the Jewish community.

Friedman does not merely argue that Jews do not need Judaism to retain their Jewish identity. He goes further and argues that authentic, religious Judaism ceased to exist as a basis for a religious identity some two hundred years ago.

According to Friedman, Reform, Conservative, Humanistic and Reconstructionist Judaism are not really religions in their own right, but are secular modifications of religious Judaism. Each either denies (Reform, Humanistic, Reconstructionist) or at least seriously compromises (Conservative) the most important basis of religious Judaism: the supernatural origin and meaning for Jews being a separate and distinct people.

Only Orthodox Judaism retains this supernatural element and the supernatural authority of the halacha (religious laws). No other group continues to hold on to the duty of obedience to the halacha as the nature of being “Jewish” — every other group, to varying degrees, asserts the primacy of reason in deciding what does and does not qualify as justified or moral action.

We must not overlook the fact that underlying every halachically required action and decision was a single and sufficient reason: because God commands it. I do this not because it will be spiritually uplifting, or because it will promote family or community solidarity, or because it will be good or my children, or because it will help the Jewish people survive, but because it is God’s will that I believe in this way.”

Most of Friedman’s book is structured as a series of “fictionalized” conversations between himself and other people. These dialogues are only partially fiction, because the material in them is derived from the actual converstions he has had with people over the course of his 35 years as Rabbi at the Congregation Beth Or Temple. Topics covered include intermarriage, spirituality, anti-semitism, religion and morality, arguments for the existence of God, and more.

Some critics may fear that that the loss of a purely religious identity means losing something necessary to their “Jewishness,” and that therefore Jews in America need to work to retain their religious beliefs. Friedman, however, would respond that:

    “I think this is the most exciting time to be Jewish in our entire history. We do not suffer from persecution. We are no longer bound by the constraints of the halacha. We have opportunities undreamed of by our ancestors. We can and do rise to the very top of the culture, in all its aspects — academic, artistic, political, entrepeneurial. For the first time, we are truly free: free to be and do what we wish, free to seek truth wherever our minds and experience lead us, free to express our Jewishness however we wish.”
Jews Without Judaism

Jews Without Judaism

    “And in exercising this freedom, we are most truly Jewish.”

Some conversations are stronger than others, but I think that they are aimed more at Jews who are early in their path to question traditional religious beliefs and assumptions. As such, it isn’t necessary to get involved with all of the nuances which a more detailed treatment of these issues would require. In such a situation it is much better to hit all of the most important points involved with the most important issues — and this Friedman seems to do very well, writing in a lively and engaging manner.

Sometimes the dialogue format can feel a little stilted because the course of the conversation does not always feel entirely “natural.” Nevertheless, on the whole I think that the material is made easier to understand and much more approachable in this format than it would be in simply a series of essays. This book serves as an excellent introduction to the ways in which being Jew is readily compatible with being secular and even being an atheist. Currently, only a minority of Jews in America are willing to formally and publicly adopt the beliefs he espouses — but what will the future hold?

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